Free school meals eligibility: Who is entitled and how to apply for your child

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Inflation has peaked to its highest rate in 30 years, leaving an unprecedented number of families across the UK struggling to make ends meet. More than 1.74 million pupils are already entitled to free school meals, though not everyone is making use of this crucial lifeline. This is how to check if your child is eligible for free school meals, and how to apply for them if you haven’t already.

The number of pupils eligible for free school meals increased by more than 296,000 between 2019 and 2021, bringing the total number of children reliant on the scheme to almost 1.75 million.

While the issue came to force at the start of the coronavirus pandemic, the rising cost of living has worsened the situation for struggling families across the country.

Councillor Shaun Davies, chair of the Local Government Association’s Resources Board, said: “Given these pressures, it is absolutely essential that all those who are eligible can get the help they need, including access to free school meals, at a time when we know the price of food and the general cost of living are spiralling.”

The Government scheme provides eligible children with a free meal while at school, though not everyone qualifies for the incentive.

This is everything you need to know about accessing free school meals in the UK.

Who is eligible for free school meals?

The government provides schools with a fixed amount per child per day to cover the cost of free school meals, but who is entitled to them?

Infants

Under the 2014 Children and Families Act, all children in reception, year one and year two are eligible for free school meals, regardless of their personal circumstances.

The school meals for infants scheme applies to children in England who attend a Government-funded (state) school, and are in the three specified year groups.

According to gov.uk, families who have children in these age groups and also receive certain types of benefits can access extra funding for their child’s school by notifying their local authority.

Children of parents or guardians who receive certain benefits

Income is the largest factor used by the Government to determine who is eligible for free school meals.

As well as state-educated infants, older children of parents or guardians who receive any of the qualifying benefits are also entitled to receive free school meals:

  • Income Support
  • Income-based Jobseeker’s Allowance
  • Income-related Employment and Support Allowance
  • Support under Part VI of the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999
  • The guaranteed element of Pension Credit Child Tax Credit (provided you’re not also entitled to Working Tax Credit and have an annual gross income of no more than £16,190)
  • Working Tax Credit run-on – paid for four weeks after you stop qualifying for Working Tax Credit
  • Universal Credit – if you applied on or after April 1, 2018, your household income must be less than £7,400 a year (after tax and not including any benefits you get)

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Government guidance states that children who get paid these benefits directly, instead of through a parent or guardian, can also get free school meals.

Children below the compulsory school-starting age (five years old) may also get free school meals if:

  • Their parent receives any of the benefits listed above
  • They are in full-time education (nursery or pre-school)

All children who are currently eligible for free school meals will remain so until they finish the phase of schooling (primary or secondary) they’re in on March 31, 2023.

How to apply for free school meals

Free school meals are classed as a Government benefit so you will need to visit the official gov.uk website to apply for your child.

Applications are relatively simple and all you need is your postcode to get started.

Visit the “apply for free school meals” page on the Government website and enter your postcode in the white box.

Once you click “find” you will be redirected to another green button which takes you to your local council website.

Each website will be slightly different, but the questions asked to receive the free meals will often be very similar.

To complete the application process you will need to know:

  • The details of each child to be claimed for, including their date of birth
  • Each child’s school year group
  • The parent or carer’s details, including their date of birth, address, phone number and email address
  • The parent or carer’s National Insurance (NI) number or National Asylum Seeking Service (NASS) number

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